The Tammany Society was formed in New York City in 1786. Initially a social organisation, it became increasingly political and by the middle of the 19th century had become a significant force in city government. Although controlled by wealthy men, the organization attracted the support of the working classes and the immigrant population. Fernando Wood, a leading figure in the society, served as mayor of the city (1855-59 and 1859-61). Wood was considered to be corrupt and was severely criticised for his opposition to the American Civil War.
By the 1860s it was impossible to hold political power in New York City without the support of the Tammany Society. By 1865 William Tweed and his three loyal companions, Peter Sweeney, Richard Connolly and Oakley Hall, ruled New York like despots.
In 1870 Tweed was appointed as commissioner of public works in New York. This enabled Tweed to carry out wholesale corruption. For example, he purchased 300 benches for $5 each and resold them to the city for $600. Tweed also organised the building of City Hall Park. Originally estimated to cost $350,000, by the time it was finished, expenditure had reached $13,000,000.
Information about Tweed's corrupt activities were passed to Thomas Nast, a cartoonist working for Harper's Weekly. Nast now began a campaign to expose Tweed's corruption. Tweed was furious and told the editor: "I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures."
Pressure was put on Harper Brothers, the company that produced the magazine, and when it refused to sack Thomas Nast, the company lost the contract to provide New York schools with books. Nast himself was offered a $500,000 bribe to end his campaign. This was hundred times the salary of $5,000 that the magazine paid him but Nast still refused to back-down.
On 21st July, the New York Times published the contents of the New York County ledger books. This revealed that thermometers were costing $7,500 and brooms were being charged at a staggering $41,190 apiece. Tweed's friends were commissioned to do the work. George Miller, a carpenter, was paid $360,747 for a month's labour, whereas James Ingersoll received $5,691,144 for furniture and carpets.
In 1871 Samuel Tilden established a committee to look into Tweed's activities. Jimmy O'Brien, the sheriff of New York, believed Tweed was not paying him enough money for his services. Disgruntled, he passed documents to Tilden's committee. William Tweed was arrested and found guilty of corruption, was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
After the fall of William Tweed the Tammany Society was reorganized by John Kelly. Members of the Tammany Society were soon back in power and determined who should be mayor of New York City. Kelly retired in 1884 and one of his lieutenants, Richard Croker, became mayor. Charles Parkhurst, the president of the Society for the Prevention of Crime, led the campaign against city corruption, but Croker remained in power until 1901 when he was defeated by Seith Low.
Charles Murphy, New York's dock commissioner, now became the new head of the the Tammany Society. After surving an investigation by John Mitchel in 1906, he brought about the election of three New York City mayors, George B. McCellan, William Jay Gaynor and John F. Hylan and helped establish the careers of Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner.
An investigation of political corruption in New York City by Samuel Seabury in 1930-31 brought an end to the career of another Tammany figure, James Walker, who was forced to resign as mayor of the city. Walker was replaced by Fiorello LaGuardia, a strong opponent of the Tammany political machine.
Fiorello LaGuardia held power for twelve years (1933-45) but when he retired from office, Carmine De Sapio, the new head of Tammany, became increasingly influential. However, his control was brought to an end when Robert F. Wagner Jr., leader of the anti-Tammany movement, was elected as major of New York City. Attempts by De Sapio to regain power in the 1960s ended in failure and the Tammany Society ceased to be a major political force in the city.